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Thursday, November 26, 2020
ILR
ILR

Police state: the buck stops with ministers

If there is one town in Australia where the government’s hand washing of police raids on journalists doesn’t ring true it’s Canberra. This is a company town and the company is the biggest in the nation – the Commonwealth government.

The denials from the government that it had anything to do with Australian Federal Police agents raiding the Kingston apartment of News Corp senior political journalist, Annika Smethurst, or the Sydney headquarters of the ABC stretch credulity. They are scarcely believable.

And this is for several reasons. The first is the days have long past where the senior mandarins of the public service enjoyed the sort of tenure where they could give fearless and frank advice with impunity. Who can forget John Howard’s night of the long knives when he assumed power in 1996? He sacked departmental heads he judged too close to his opponents in the vanquished Labor government.

So what we now have is very senior public servants whose very appointment depends on the goodwill of the incumbent government. Their career prospects will advance the better they read the wind and ingratiate themselves not only to the policy objectives of the government but also the political wellbeing of the government.

It’s obvious really and the stories that sparked the heavy handed police action prove it. It was not national security at risk but national embarrassment. In the ABC case, the embarrassment was for our military. An army lawyer leaked to the ABC documents which showed our troops were being investigated for possible unlawful killing of civilians in Afghanistan. Surely Australians have a right to know if those who wear the nation’s uniform are faithful to its values and rules of engagement.

The Smethurst story published in the mass circulation News Corp Sunday tabloids – 14 months ago – told Australians the new Department of Home Affairs was seriously considering giving our external intelligence agency the right to spy on Australians without warrant; by any measure a story in the public interest. What is particularly disturbing here is there are strong suspicions, certainly in the parliamentary press gallery, that Smethurst’s sources were “close to Liberal cabinet ministers” worried by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s wider power grab. So, far from national security, what was in play was Liberal party internal politics. The story did its job for them. The Dutton department’s agenda in this instance was stymied by the Turnbull cabinet.

In both instances, the referring departmental heads couldn’t be blamed for thinking their efforts would be appreciated by their ministerial masters. Surely they deserve a pay rise. Strong messages have been sent: whistle-blowers seeking to embarrass the government better take extreme care – and that includes journalists doing their job informing the public.

Leading international rights and constitutional lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC believes our laws including the 100-year-old Crimes Act need urgent amending.

Our reputation as a free democratic nation depends on it.